Archive for February, 2008

Friday Night Date Place – Shopping to Shop

Smokey Robinson sang about “my momma told me, ‘you better shop around’” (my dad listened to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, I’m not dating myself by any stretch). I am more of a pragmatist at heart than a romantic, so a certain about of shopping, haggling, and trading makes sense to me. Also feeding into this is the fact that I’m a guy, so mid-life crises (still not dating myself) also makes sense to me.

I can see this blog quickly getting away from me (it’s the potential pitfall of writing about singles’ issues while your wife not only reads over your shoulder, but keeps flashing back to the series of break ups the two of you had while dating), so let me try this another way. On a certain level, I understand (not saying I condone, approve, or otherwise give assent to) the idea of people trading up: to go prettier, smarter, funnier, wealthier in their next relationship – a terminal case of the grass-is-always-greener-itis. (Unless you are escaping a bad situation, then just run!)

It’s not much of an intuitive leap since too often we treat relationships like disposable commodities. However, what I can’t get my mind around is the idea of shopping to be shopping, or rather, trading simply for the sake of trading. A lateral move rather than a move up in anyway. I suppose in guy parlance, it could be seen as getting a little “strange” on the side; taking us back to the idea of folks getting tired of the same old home-cooking (which would really suck for me since I do all of the cooking in our house. I mean that in the literal sense).

The irony of all of this—between the stereotype of the mid-life crisis/trading the wife for the young secretary and/or the idea of getting some “strange”—is that the reason this topic has come up is because in my circle of friends, it has been the guys dumped. So obviously, this is an equal opportunity condition.

Selfishness and narcissism can rot relationships from the inside. The idea of entitlement, things being about “my needs” and “me first”, is antithetical to how relationships ought to work. Not having needs met; wanting to feel young, pretty, relevant, pursued again; simply wanting a change of scenery, these are symptoms of a poor idea of how relationships work (and while dating, maybe it’s best that they leave. However, these are things that ought to be worked through in a marriage situation).

We suffer from a relational disconnect. There is an emotional desensitization that comes with spending too much time with one person, especially when locked in the same routine. Relationships can only survive by continual reconnection. We combat the disconnect by being present in the relationship, investing time, self, and energy into it, prioritizing the person we wish to spend our life with.

I have a couple of friends who I see constantly. We worry about relational fatigue because we don’t want to get sick of each other. I worry about it less (now) because, for one thing, relationships change. If you take a look at your current circle of friends, there’s a good chance that a year from now, maybe two, the complexion of your circle of friends will be different. People whom you shared intimate secrets with one day drift (or storm) out of your life. People fight. Misunderstandings occur. Trust is betrayed. People move, switch social circles, life, circumstances, what have you – you wake up one day and realize that some folks aren’t as close to you or aren’t as much a part of your world as they used to be. There is a natural ebb and flow to relationships.

For another thing, we have a dynamic I pray will be sustained despite the aforementioned observation about relationships. It’s like we’re in a constant competition to see who can love each other more. The math is simple: Continual acts of love = continual reconnection. Not letting the relationship grow stale or old, valuing the time you spend together, not taking the relationship for granted. Distance may make the heart grow fonder, but only until the heart no longer cares.

Browse if you need to, that’s what dating is all about. Serially wrapping yourself in a relationship simply for the sake of doing so (for the sake of not wanting to be alone, or needing a new face to keep you company), is the height of selfishness. And you may want to seriously look in the mirror and examine yourself about that.

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A Good Year So Far

(aka I’m letting my inbox recover from yesterday’s post …)

Well, 2008 is shaping up to be a serious breakout year for me. The year where I finally feel like I’m no longer just playing a writer on the Internet. My story “Snapping Points” is currently up on the MagusZine site (which also has a new story by Jason Sizemore).

Come March, you will find me in a couple of places. Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest #12 will have my story “Broken Strand” (as well as having stuff by Brian Keene, Steven Shrewsbury, Michael West, and Alethea Kontis – all sorts of Mo*Con alumni).
Doorways #5 will have my story “Just a Young Man and His Games” in it (and I’ll be sharing covers with Bob Freeman)
Mo*Con III will see the debut of at least two projects. The first is the novella co-written with Wrath James White, “Orgy of Souls.” I’ll have a separate blog about this one further down the road, which may double as my resignation letter from Christianity entirely as Wrath seemed determined to get me all kinds of fired.

The second is an anthology from the Indiana Horror Writers. I have two stories in there, “Soul Food” (a reprint of the first story ever published by me) and “Dark Night of the Soul”. They will sit proudly along stories by Bob Freeman (“Born Again”), Michael West (“Trolling”), Sara Larson (“Co-Dependency”) and Tracy Jones’ (“The Coven”) among others. Bob not only designed the cover but also the book trailer.

Later on this year will see the arrival of a couple of other new projects, some of them, once more, alongside Bob Freeman and Steve Shrewsbury (my story, “The Iron Hut” coming out in the Eldritch Steel anthology), that I’ll announce closer to when they are coming out. One way to look at this is that I’m stalking Bob, Michael, and Steve. Another is that it’s nice to have your friends enjoying success alongside you.

Oh, and my story “Rite of Passage” was just accepted by Space and Time Magazine. Like I said, not a bad year so far.

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Why I Haven’t Self-Published

Whenever a writer talks about writing at any length, eventually the topic of whether or not to self-publish comes up. It doesn’t matter how gingerly how one talks about the subject, once it rears its head, it can become fairly divisive. Accusations of being elitist, a shill for the establishment/Old Boys Network; of belittling those who challenge the way things have been done, the comments come quick and furious as people justify their career choices. And that’s what it boils down to – a career decision each writer must make for themselves.

[Continued on Blogging in Black]

Make with the clicky clicky, but excuse me while I head to my bomb shelter to duck the incoming slings.

Edited to add:

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I Don’t Twitter

Seriously, I hate Twitter. I hate the idea of Twitter. In fact, as I hop on my hypocrisy broom since I have a column and a blog, in this age of blogs and Twitter and Facefook and MySpace, it may be time for many folks to shut up.

There’s a reason we aren’t telepaths: I don’t have to hear your every thought, especially when you think it. Too many of us as is don’t take the time to sit with our thoughts, to mull things over, before we open our pie holes. No, we feel something in the moment and then blog it, let your mouth get away from us (or rather, our fingers get ahead of us as we come down with a case of keyboard courage).

Maybe I’m just disappointed by the level of conversation. More likely, I see myself as a professional writer and with the Internet being largely a medium of words (and porn), I tend to cling to the pipe dream that as written communicators, we should be able to present our ideas and opinions in clear and precise ways. Of course, the other edge of that writer’s sword that I’m swinging is that writers have ego enough to believe that what they write deserves to be read. Unfortunately, Twittering everything that pops into your head gives plenty of room for people to see the shallowness and vacuity of those thoughts.

It’s easy to shoot yourself in the foot on the Internet. As we vomit our gossipy messages all over the Internet, heedless of the mess we make, we forget two things: one, careless words can’t be unsaid, even more so on the Internet; and two, the Internet is forever and we don’t realize that nothing is truly deleted.

Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon who can’t idly flit away a day updating folks on his mood. Keep in mind that I don’t text message. I don’t believe the language of Shakespeare should be reduced to OMG C U L8TR, but that’s a rant for another day.

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Fundamentalist Atheism

Fundamentalists of all stripes have more in common than they think.

I was thinking about this after a conversation with someone who I consider an atheist fundamentalist as well as with someone who I consider a Christian fundamentalist. (I don’t mean fundamentalist as in they have a few fundamental tenets that undergird what they believe. I mean fundamentalist as in that cultural mindset of a strident adherence to a set of beliefs.)

There are some universal characteristics of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists tend to view the world from a reactionary perspective. They see themselves as defenders of their faith, be it a belief in science and the doctrine of the scientific method or rationalism in general. And they view these principles as vital to not only a way of life for them, but for society as a whole. Through their belief system, salvation is possible. When their beliefs are challenged or threatened, it is felt at a personal as well as social level.

They (have elevated and) believe their cause to be of central importance. Certain issues become fundamental, all or nothing type beliefs, thus their posture of having to fight back perceived encroachments on their worldview (or more generously, fight for their worldview). Unfortunately, this tends to lead to a demonizing, a caricaturizing, of their enemies (backing up, it leads to them declaring some people their enemies). Enemies that need to be converted. They become just as evangelistic when laying out the atheist equivalent to the “Four Spiritual Laws”/Chick tracts. True fanatical devotees spend time on blogs, message boards, endlessly raging about the Church and Christians. It all becomes about reinforcing their identity. I keep waiting for an atheistic jihad (or Crusades, depending on which side you are on of the analogy) to be declared.

Basically, I get as big a headache talking to them as any other fundamentalist. Mostly because conversation is limited due to the fact that they are more inflexible in their thinking than they want to believe. The idea of faith is irrelevant. The God question is irrelevant . Ultimate questions become any questions. So conversations with people who take their faith seriously becomes difficult. It’s one thing to question, doubt, critique, but when you dismiss people of faith as idiots, conversation ceases (and typically further name calling ensues).

The journey of knowledge begins with an assumption: atheists begin with human reason (“I know through my reason, I know because I’ve reasoned that”); people of faith with theirs (“The Bible is the word of God because it says it is”). Oversimplified, I know, but minds of inquiry and genuine intellectual curiosity can journey together. I have enjoyed conversations with many of my atheist friends. I also understand how many have had bitter experiences with the church, faith, or those who call themselves Christians (and we’ve given plenty of reason for folks to be bitter) and have become fundamentalist in their thinking. When there is mutual respect, conversations can be had, and both sides can learn from the other.

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Friday Night Date Place – Church Screws Up?

“A major source of hostility to sex is religion.” –A.C. Grayling

YBOR CITY, Fla. – A southwest Florida church issued a challenge for its married members this past Sunday: Hanky-panky every day. Relevant Church head pastor Paul Wirth says the 50 percent divorce rate was the catalyst for The 30-Day Sex Challenge.

“And that’s no different for people who attend church,” Wirth said. “Sometimes life gets in the way. Our jobs get in the way.” Oh, and the flip side of the challenge? No rolling in the sheets for the unwed.

A mandate for sex from the pulpit? These people are genius! I like sex (memo to my wife who I know reads this). I am pro-sex. I have no discomfort in talking about it (I talk about it in Friday Night Date Place fairly often). As parents, we try to navigate those seemingly treacherous waters early with our boys, 5 and 6, so the conversations go easier later (the 5 year old recently revealed having a thing for Summer Glau, the female Terminator so we might as well start having these conversations).

Except, the mandate for being pro-sex isn’t the relevant idea from a too cool pastor. It is an idea true to the story of the Bible. Church/religion has screwed up a lot of ideas about how we think about and deal with sex. We act as if the book Song of Songs isn’t in the Bible. We make our kids leave the sanctuary if we mention it. Why? They need to hear about it as much as anyone else. Where best can they learn what it means and how best to love one another?

(And I’m not talking about showing videos with a voiceover saying “here’s how pastor likes it.”)

Take “Christian love songs” for a example. Within the confines of the Christian ghetto, there is a need for Christian pop music, but much of it is bereft of the idea of how romantic love should work or how it should look. Christians singing love songs face hostility from within and without the Christian market, because they are expected to only talk about God, as if all areas of our lives aren’t under God’s dominion. As artists, we should be truthful (and true to our art) about the entire spectrum of the human condition. The whole of lives: being in love, being depressed, the beauty and passion of sex. It’s like there are some aspects of life we aren’t supposed to talk about from our pulpits or in our art.

In the ideal we were meant to be sensual, seeking pleasure in one another, being passionate. Tales of how we love each other should be something to write and sing about as part of enjoying creation includes each other’s bodies. Unfortunately, every relationship is touched by sin and pain. We’re a broken people doing our best to muddle through broken relationships as best we can.

We need a better, a bigger, view of romance and sex, both within the church and without. There is beauty to be found and had; the power and heat of attraction; the meaning of sex and the need to be known; the sensuality of being appreciated and of building up one another and putting the other’s needs ahead of your own. Conversations had without shame, all building on a sacred trust and commitment. Sex is the divine connection, we need to know more about it and not abuse it.

Dating is the process of two stories coming together in light of a greater Story. There is a public as well as private dimension to the process. I commend this church for having this dialogue on sex. Things ought to be discussed in community. Friends can see the disparity between the ideal (how folks in love see each other) and the real (how their friends truly are). Love gains confidence when affirmed by others, especially those who know them. In community, we need to model how to love one another and how to nurture relationship. In private, we need to pace ourselves and the relationship. If nothing else, remember the wisdom of Song of Songs 2:7: “Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.”

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Fear of Punishment II

All of this talk of parenting and punishment got me to thinking about why we obey God. A friend of mine asked if I obeyed the tenets of my faith because I was afraid of punishment (either of burning in hell or being otherwise “smited”). On the flip side, am I obedient strictly because of the possible privileges (either eternity in heaven or otherwise getting rewarded)?

I suppose in our capitalist way of thinking, reward and punishment isn’t a bad motivation for why we do things. The downside is that this places us only a hop, skip, and an apostasy from the prosperity gospel that has infected Christianity.

Ultimately, it paints a rather sad way to live. Fear of punishment is no way to establish and maintain a relationship. It’s the kind of “love me … or else!” mentality of an abusive parent, a relationship build on fear which is quite the opposite of love. I do think there is a fearful element to God, one built of awe and majesty, of the transcendent and a fear of losing that which is precious.

Part of me wonders if this “fear of punishment” mentality stems from the fact of the Gospel message having been reduced to a legal transaction (Christ’s sacrifice balancing the scales of cosmic justice) or presented at Christ sparing us from the hands of an angry God (leading to a get your own butt into heaven, save yourself sort of salvation).

So why should I be obedient? Why should I love God? Is it a matter of “because I said so” (the oldest of parental justifications)? Do we love God because he first loved us, thus we have a debt to love him? Do we also love him because it is in our best interest to do so? Is any of this the kind of love we want to build a relationship on? Do we love God because it is the natural response for all that he has done for us?

Someone want to jump in here and save me from my spiraling thoughts?*

*This is one of those times when my faith is pretty simple: I love God because … he’s God. I love my parents not because I’m scared of them or want into their will, but because they’re my parents. They first loved me and love tends to reciprocate. It’s not a matter of debt or obligation. God’s law is relational, Him stepping into my life to guide and protect. Obedience sustains the relationship. It’s love in practice.

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Fear of Punishment I

So for a while now, my wife and I have been struggling with the idea of how to go about disciplining our kids. We have no interest in raising undisciplined monsters who are over-indulged. On the other hand, I have huge issues with spanking being the only tool in a parents tool kit. Too often, it’s lazy parenting (“do what I say or I’ll beat you”) or worse, done in anger and frustration. The anger and frustration thing really bothers me. I don’t care how often you “explain” to your child why they are getting spanked, when it’s done as the discipline or choice or done in anger/frustration, the child is going to associate violence with that parent.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid to spank a butt, but I want it to be one of my last tools, not the first thing I reach for. (Have you noticed how defensive parents get about their decisions on how to raise their child? No one wants to be thought of as doing a bad job/screwing up their kids. We may have to bring back to having a therapy jar.*)

Over the last couple months, we’ve settled on a “levels” system. Ours was adopted from the one my sister uses, though hers has levels with sub-categories of points and involves a lot more paperwork (ultimately, it’s similar to the system used at the Juvenile Detention Unit. In other words, we might as well get our kids used to that system).

We have two boys, Reese (Maurice the II) and Malcolm. Each has their own personality, likes, and dislikes, so we had to tailor their punishments for each of them. In short:

Level 6 – this is the Holy Grail of levels. A pipe dream. They have to sustain being at Level 5 for a week. It’s the equivalent of me being so good, I get put back in my parents’ will. (To be fair, Reese did actually get to Level 6 for one brief shining moment to show that he could do it. He got to pick his prize, which was to design a family evening, anything from a trip to the zoo or Children’s Museum to Chuck E. Cheese. For him it meant ordering in Chinese food and getting a toy he had his eye on. The next day, he promptly lost his mind and went down a couple levels).

Level 5 – where they should be. All privileges intact.

Level 4 – they lose candy (Malcolm) and allowance (Reese). For the record, allowance (all of fifty cents a week) was instituted so that they could see how long it takes to save up to a) go to McDonald’s or b) buy that toy on television.

Level 3 – they lose videogame (Malcolm) and crafts (Reese).

Level 2 – they lose bedtime reading (both).

Level 1 – they lose television time (both).

Level 0 – they lose play date privileges (because we’re so active with friends, we have about four a week. The down side is every night we’re met with the question “who’s coming over tonight?”) The kid is on lockdown. No privileges. Except books. They are always allowed books.

A few months in, this is working surprisingly well. We keep the system simple for now (they are only 5 and 6) so that they understand the consequences for their actions. As they get older, I’m sure we’ll tweak it a bit. They’ve also become a bit of “Level Accountants”, always wanting to know what level they are on and what it will take to get up to the next level. I can live with that. The “no-no paddle” has a nice layer of dust on it.

It’s our continuing experiment in raising children. The downside to having the kids 14 months from each other is that we didn’t have time to work out the kinks on the first one in hopes of getting it right the second time around. Nope, we get to screw them both up at the same time.

*An early idea of mine: every time we did something we thought would screw up the kids, we’d have to put a dollar in the jar. Let’s just say that “Naked Daddy Time” nearly bankrupted me (HEY! It was their own fault! I don’t know why kids feel the need to never let you even go to the bathroom by yourself. They didn’t expect a song and dance routine.)

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My Vote is Up for Grabs

Here me candidates from all parties: my vote is up for grabs. Young, middle class, black male, a prime catch if you can hook me. Technically, I’m a registered Republican (don’t get all excited: When I decided to register to vote, I called up each party. I care, but I’m lazy, so I called the Democrats first since they’re first alphabetically. They told me where I could go to get registered. Then I called the Republicans. They came to my door. That’s why they get the right of first refusal of my vote.)

And since I’m really in the mood to make friends, I’ll add this: though I’m a conservative Christian also, I recognize that I can’t simply litmus test candidates based on two issues. Seriously, I don’t know how much homosexual rights and abortion policy have to do with stances on the environment and foreign policy (and don’t give me “character” because we’re still talking about politicians).

At a cursory glance, Republican rhetoric centers too much talking in terms of money and running the country like a business. That’s good and all, but there aren’t too many things I want run like a business, except maybe a business. Serving the needs of people is very seldom bottom-line nor cost effective. Democrats don’t look much better. Too often they run the campaign position of “we’re not them”.

Have you noticed that a lot of these “vs” arguments no longer matter to a lot of us? It’s like they are more interested in arguing with each other, not realizing that they are disconnecting from whole generations of people in the mean time. At some point, if they wish to remain relevant, they will have to turn around (or outside of one another) and start answering the questions being asked of today’s culture. Because when it comes right down to them, the terms describe camps a lot more than they do people.

So here’s what I’m asking O Red and Blue platforms: show me something. Give me your vision. Give me some real candidates, not cardboard cutouts whose “turn” it is to run. You give me intelligent ideas and a sense of hope for the future, and you will have my attention. If not, I will just sit on my couch with my big bowl of apathy topped with cynicism and pray that there’s something good on television.

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Emerging Frustrations

Over the past year or so, it seems like about half a dozen or so churches popping up in the Indianapolis area under the umbrella of being “emergent” (however you choose to define the term; Lord knows I’ve tried before). The Dwelling Place is often called an emergent church (and I have no problem being labeled such), although we tend to refer to ourselves as a missional church (why? Because like any other “denomination”, the term “emergent” comes with a lot of baggage/doesn’t seem to mean anything to most people; whereas the word “missional” people can intuitively grasp).

There has been some great posts on the different models of emerging churches, but I’m much more of a pragmatist than theologian/philosopher. For me, in practice, churches that call themselves emergent tend to fall into one of three camps:

1. Too hip by half. These are what I call the “trappings” brand of churches. It was part of my lament from attending the 2004 Emergent Convention. I saw a lot of people over-emphasizing cosmetic changes and doing creative/“edgy” things almost for their own sake. A more cynical person would accuse them of attempting to re-create their college praise experience or venting their youth leader traumas. At any rate, they seem to be the equivalent to traditional/contemporary worship schisms where the only difference in the service was the brand of music (hymns vs. choruses) played.

2. Traditional looking. When all is said and done, I don’t think The Dwelling Place looks overtly much different than the kind of church I grew up with. Occasionally, candles and media clips are used, but for the most part, none of the boogeyman aspects people have attached to the word “emergent” could be seen there. (One friend of mine said that “I don’t know why you don’t just call yourself American Orthodox and be done with it.”)

3. The picnic set. Foregoing entire the idea of organized “church”, they’ve abandoned anything resembling a traditional model. You never know where you’ll find them (though a coffee shop is a pretty good guess. Emergent folks tend to love coffee and beer.)

So what makes them emergent? Maybe it can be described as an attitude, a matter of their posture. What I mean is that they are about conversation and questioning, meeting people where they are, and realizing that if we can’t be certain about anything, we can learn from anyone. This includes the consumeristic folks in need of the familiar, that is, they need the “look” of the kind of church they grew up in, even though they know they will be stretched out of that mindset (too often emergent folks have a chip on their shoulder against “churched” folk). In other words, there is room for all.

At the same time, they can’t neglect the business of church. Church isn’t always going to look the same. However, I do have a concern about the picnic types. I understand that spiritual times and conversations can be had with a gathering of friends watching an episode of Lost or getting together at a coffee house. The Holy Spirit is present (as the verse goes, where two or more are gathered), so I don’t want to sell Her short.

It’s just that in our hyper-individualistic reaction to the idea of church (and the need to be constantly entertained), we can’t forget the business of church. Spiritual formation. Discipleship. Communion. Being Transformational.

We are to become new creatures, a people of God. Corporate worship should neither be a pep rally nor a lecture hall, but a place for interacting with God, the Word, and the Table (Communion). It should shape who we are. Our individual inner journeys should lead to a heart change and from that heart change, we should be lead to an outward journey of loving other people – done in community.

Jesus already told us the church is a mess and that He’ll sort it out in the end. In the mean time, welcome the stranger and join with others. Continue God’s mission (because He’s already at work) of redeeming the world (the missional aspect of what we should be about). Whether we eat or go to parties, our lives are a mission, an incarnational ministry. And only through continual incarnation is the work of the church done.

I believe in God. I believe in the church.

Still, I always have to question any organization that will have me as a member.

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